Leland Conference Weighs Future Of Local Life Science Industry

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Apr 4, 2024
The first Leland Life Science and Medical Technology Summit at the Leland Cultural Arts Center on Thursday featured educators and leaders in the life science industry. (Photo by Audrey Elsberry)
The Leland Life Science and Medical Technology Summit captured industry the thoughts of local leaders and stakeholders on the latest in life sciences on Thursday during the first annual gathering hosted by the town of Leland.

Individuals from education, government and industry sectors discussed the potential and pain points of the area’s life sciences industry. That included officials from the region’s major players like Cygnus Technologies, MicroSolv Technology Corporation, Hygenix and Flow Sciences spoke about workforce development challenges and the trends propelling their companies forward.

A vein running through each of the event’s panels was shared excitement about increased activity in the area along with a sense of urgency to maintain that momentum through hiring and connectivity efforts.

While industry professionals voiced workforce woes, officials from support organizations NC Innovation, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, North Carolina's Southeast, NC Biotech and NC EcoTech spoke about their efforts to fund projects and upskill individuals to fill those hiring gaps.

“How do you find your niche? How do you grow yourself? And how do you continue to remain, in an intentional fashion, uber-competitive with these types of projects?” asked Joe Melvin, vice president of North Carolina's Southeast. Melvin works with companies across the country looking for where to plant their next site and advocates for the 20 counties in the southeast corner of the state.

A panel of industry leaders with locations in the Leland area educated audience members on what their companies do and how they got to Leland. The conversation sparked chuckles across the room as biotech company officials attempted to explain the ultra-complex processes and products they work with.

The complexity of the industry's work can make pitching the company or connecting with other businesses in the region difficult, said Steve Janz, vice president of international sales at Flow Sciences.

“We’re talking about parts-per-billion, not necessarily something you talk about at the dinner table,” Janz said.

Flow Sciences makes industrial equipment like glove boxes — not those in a car but those used by lab personnel to protect them from volatile substances. Flow Sciences was named exporter of the year by the Export-Import Bank of the U.S. in 2023, due to the research and background the company does with its distributors like those it works with out of Singapore.

Despite some difficulties explaining his business to those outside the industry, Janz said Flow Sciences is interested in collaboration with other local companies, which he referred to as “technology transfers.” Company officials have met with contract pharmaceutical manufacturer Alcami, which has offices in Wilmington, about working together, he said.

Janz went on to discuss workforce challenges associated not only biotech with but also with manufacturing. He participates in the Cape Fear Manufacturing Partnership and works to educate students on the potential of working in manufacturing, he said.

In the larger biotech industry, Bill Ciccone, president of MicroSolv, echoed notions from other company leaders that talent is hard to find. There are not many biochemists available in the talent pool, said Eric Bishop, vice president of research and development at Cygnus. Cygnus Technologies is involved in gene therapy where medical professionals can use genes to treat diseases by replacing a defective gene with a healthy one. 

The leaders also acknowledged that not all the jobs needed in the biotech market are technological or scientific roles. Many open roles are support positions, said Randall Johnson, executive director of NC Biotech’s Southeastern office. Biotech companies need welders and HVAC employees in addition to core biotech skills, he said.

When speaking with site selectors, access to talent is a key factor driving where businesses decide to locate. The site selectors will often ask how much talent is accessible within a 20-minute travel radius around a site, Melvin said.

“If they can’t find the people to work, you can provide all the incentives in the world,” Melvin said, “but it’s not going to work.”
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